Friday, December 1, 2017

More on "Mr. Novak": An interview with author Chuck Harter.

Please see yesterday's post for my review of the new book about the 1963-1965 TV  series Mr. Novak. THe author, Chuck Harter, was kind enough to answer some questions and share even more insight on his work and on the TV series. Please enjoy, and I highly recommend you hit the links below to check out the book.
RICK: Thanks for taking the time to talk a bit about your excellent new book, Mr.  Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series. As a classic TV lover and someone who appreciates efforts to preserve and explore the history of the medium, I feel like I need to thank you and your publisher, Bear Manor Media, just for producing a comprehensive account of an underseen gem like Mr. Novak.

You do touch on this in the book, but could you briefly explain what motivated you to not just seek out the show, but to research and write about it?
CHUCK:       On behalf of myself and Ben Ohmart (Publisher) of, your thanks for our efforts are very much appreciated.

My interest in pursuing a book project on the Mr. Novak series began with a viewing of a couple of episodes some three years ago. I was so impressed with the excellence of the scripting, acting, directing and production that I wished to purchase a book to find out more about this amazing program that had somehow slipped through the cracks and been largely forgotten. As I viewed additional episodes, I was pleased to see the high level of creativity and presentation maintained which motivated me to expend maximum effort to create a book as good as the series. Another factor was the enthusiasm and generosity of virtually everyone that I was able to contact who were either a part of the program or were fans. The result of my efforts has been a 100% positive reaction to the book which is very gratifying.

RICK: It seems to me that today, the combination of critical acclaim and (I assume from the significant anecdotal evidence in your book) the desirable young demographics of Mr. Novak would give it a better chance to stick around for more than a few years. You point to several different factors to its early demise. Do you think one single decision/factor could have made the show a bigger success, and if so, what?

CHUCK: The one single factor that would have enabled the Mr. Novak series to continue for several more years than it did would have been a different day’s time slot. In the days before vcrs, people were unable to tape a show for later viewing and many homes had a single television.  There have been several cases in the history of TV where a superior show was broadcast opposite an extremely popular series that achieved higher ratings. The result was eventual cancellation despite , in many cases, critical acclaim. The Tuesday 7:30 p.m. time slot for Mr. Novak was ideal but unfortunately it was broadcast opposite  the very popular Combat, which consistently won the Nielsen ratings. If Mr. Novak had aired against programming that wasn’t quite as strong it would have undoubtedly won its time slot and could have continued. It was a case of a cerebral dramatic show versus an action series. The quality of Mr. Novak’s presentation does hold up remarkably well for the two seasons that it did air.

RICK:  One of the fascinating threads you weave into the account of the series' history is the love/hate attitude of the fan magazines toward star James Franciscus. You provide plenty of information contradicting the chatter during the show's run about friction between stars James Franciscus and Dean Jagger, and you indicate that much of it was probably fabricated. How much credence do you give to those rumors? It seems like there was a lot of smoke there.

CHUCK:     James Franciscus did not like the TV and movie fan magazines that published salacious and gossip styled stories about him and his family. He was quite vocal about his distaste for this type of fabricated publicity. His lack of cooperation with these publications twice won him a Sour Apple Award and the writers and editors of the fan magazines were out to discredit him. They not only fabricated a feud between the actor  and Dean Jagger but also published several stories about a feud with Dick Chamberlain. In the case of the stars of Mr. Novak, there was no feud. They were working professionals who were cordial with each other and had a mutual respect. Mr. Novak was a dialogue based show and both actors prided themselves on being letter perfect in their scenes. They wouldn’t socialize  together after scenes were shot because they were running lines in their respective dressing rooms. Franciscus and Chamberlian  also respected each other but moved in different social circles since Jim was married and Dick was a bachelor. While they both filmed their respective series at the MGM studio, the days were long and arduous and they might only briefly exchange pleasantries at lunch in the commissary.
RICK:  Again, you do get into this in your book, but what do you think ultimately doomed the series to such a brief run? Creative changes? Timeslot difficulty? Is there any single reason that such a quality show fell into the "went too soon" category?

CHUCK: I believe there were two main reasons the show was doomed to a brief run. The first was the loss of series’ leads Jeanne Bal and Dean Jagger. An audience identifies with the stars of any program and when there is a departure, it can weaken the viewer’s interest. If they had both stayed, it might have been a different situation of survival. The other reason occurred when series’ creator and executive producer E. Jack Neuman stepped down from a hand’s on approach in the second season. He understood his own concepts of the show and when these were followed, the program was critically acclaimed. When Leonard Freeman became the producer of the second season, he had a different idea of what the series should be. I’m sure he was motivated by the suits since there was a justifiable concern about the lesser ratings situation. The unfortunate result was that there was less emphasis on school life and the involvement of the other teachers. With that said, there are many great episodes in the second season. When Burgess Meredith, replaced Dean Jagger in the middle of the second season, it took some episodes for him to get a grip on his character as the new principal. He was really becoming a major part of the show when it ended. Had there been a third season, I think he would have had as good an impact on the audience as Dean Jagger did.
RICK: Many of Mr. Novak's key figures had passed away well before you started the book. If you had a chance today to ask something of any of them--whether it be Franciscus, Jagger, or creator E. Jack Neuman--what would it be?
CHUCK: Three questions for three members of the Mr. Novak family.
 1.       James Franciscus – I would have liked to have asked him about his writing of the columns for ‘TEEN magazine in which he gave constructive advice for his youthful followers. Apparently he took the writing seriously and was pleased that they were well received. He wanted to use his stardom to help his viewing audience which was a very admirable thing to do. I would also have liked to question him about his willingness to cooperate with the teen mags as opposed to his refusal to cooperate with the fan magazines and finally what he really felt about being such a positive influence on the educational community.
2.       Dean Jagger – I would have liked to have asked him about his positive influence on the educational communities and how he felt about made a member for life by the  National Association of Secondary School Principals. I would also have liked to ask him about his effective underplaying as Principal Vane. He often would mutter seemingly throwaway lines that would be dramatically effective. Many of his best scenes as Principal Vane are underplayed and are still emotionally moving in the current day.
3.       E. Jack Neuman – I would have liked to have asked him about his feelings regarding the many awards that the series won . Since this was his vision and creation, this must have been tremendously gratifying for him as a creative artist. I would also liked to have asked him about his views on the portrayals of his leads by Franciscus and Jagger and how he felt about seeing the shows all these years later and how well they stand up.
RICK: Do you have any other projects on the horizon you'd like to mention? It looks like you are busy with music and other endeavors, but would you consider giving any other classic TV shows a similar treatment?
CHUCK:  I am considering another possible book project on a short lived TV series from 1961. I do need to ascertain if there is enough material to justify a modest book on the show so I’ll  keep that close to my vest at this time. I’ll just say that if it does proceed, I’ll expend the same energy and perseverance that I did on the Mr. Novak project. I also plan to return to musical performance and perhaps do some recording.
Please note that the book is available in hardback, paperback and Ebook editions. They can be ordered from and   The book’s website is



Ben Ohmart said...

Chuck is one of the best and most dedicated writers I've read!

Rick Brooks said...

Thanks for your comment and for your continued support of interesting books about popular culture!